On November 10th Police Commissioner Andrew Scipione addressed West Epping Uniting Church’s men’s group on “Hope in a Scary World”. His title makes me wonder what has happened to former Prime Minister Howard’s vision of a “relaxed and comfortable” country. Since Mr Howard pronounced those words we have seemed always to be spooked by some peril, real or imagined: concerns about law and order, asylum seekers, weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, memories of high interest rates, local, national and world-wide concerns about the environment, and now fear of world-wide economic meltdown.
Not that any of these perils is new. Older Australians had lived through world-wide conflagrations that dwarfed the events of September 11, 2001 and impelled a whole generation of refugees and asylum seekers to our shores. From the late ‘40s to the end of the ‘80s we lived with the threats of Communism, the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. In the ‘70s home-grown terrorists bombed the Hilton Hotel and a government, excited at gaining office after 23 years, nearly bankrupted the country. In the ‘80s concern at the state of the environment came to the fore, only to be submerged by Paul Keating’s “recession we had to have”.
Despite the undoubted increase in our wealth over the past 15 years, however, we have become more stressed, and therefore more fearful. Social commentators attribute good reasons to this. We are more time-poor than ever. The distribution of our wealth is less equitable than it was. I suspect, though, that a key factor has to do with the ever-increasing rate of change. This is not simply about the vast array of gadgets that has invaded our lives, or that our civilization is undergoing a systemic shift from being industrially based to being information-based, though these can be unsettling enough.
Less tangibly but more fundamentally, that which undergirds our sense of values has shifted. There is no longer a “metanarrative”, a commonly agreed upon “big story” such as Christianity’s message of God’s saving love in Jesus, or the Enlightenment’s faith in progress, that sustains our society. Western civilization has moved from “Modernity’s” faith in human progress to post-modern values that are less clear. Perhaps the last time western society became so stressed was 500 odd years ago, during the upheavals that marked the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity. Now, as then, the ways in which people understand the spiritual dimension of life is undergoing great change, greatly affecting how westerners understand “life, the universe and everything”. That, I suggest, is so regardless of whether people are deeply pious or barely ‘spiritual’ at all, and it has had the effect of deeply unsettling people, so that all of life seems somehow more “scary”.
Like it or lump it, the Christian faith forms much of the basis of western society. If the stress we are experiencing is at least partially due to our society moving from one way of understanding life to another, and if much of these understandings derives from the Christian faith, is it possible to with integrity re-interpret that faith in ways that help our stress-ridden, fearful Australian society? Spirituality is what the Church offers society. What kind of spirituality, what way of understanding who God is and how God helps us in Jesus can help people harrassed by…well, fundamentally by change?
Let’s start by addressing our common points of need, for “the Christians” are just as subject to society’s stress factors as are “the lions”. There seem to be three major areas of fear and stress for people: the economy, threats posed by other people, and, more recently, the environment. I suggest that they are connected and that, in Al Gore’s words, if we grab the connector and give it a good tug the whole thing might, marvellously enough, fall out simply.
The connector I propose is the Greek word oikos, which means “house”. Oikos gives us oikonomia, or “economy”, which at a basic level simply means “the ordering of the house” and oikumene, meaning “the whole inhabited world”. For the Greeks “house’ became an image for the world. For Christians it is an image of the Church: our word “ecumenism” derives from oikumene. Finally, in 1866 Ernst Haegel, a German, coined the word “ecology” by combining oikos and logos. “Ecology” means “the study of the house”, though it has come to mean much more than that.
So a spirituality of oikos the house could be helpful for our stressed, fearful times. I reckon that the Uniting Church got it exactly right by being an explicitly ecumenical endeavour. That is what these times demand, for through the media we have instant purview of “the whole inhabited world”. One of today’s basic needs is for peacebuilding which, at a fundamental level, is what the Uniting Church is about. We have also done well to emphasize social justice. The house of our inhabited world needs to be ordered in particular ways for which the Bible gives helpful advice, and to which the greed inspired by the past 15 years of economic growth runs counter.
To my mind, however, though we have come to ecology more recently it underlies the other two oikos-derived factors. One of the images of our times for me is a graphic showing how, if ocean levels rose only some metres, the World Trade Centre site in Manhattan would be inundated. Yet the American response to the destruction of the Twin Towers has been to wage an unimaginably expensive, largely counter-productive “war against terror” while ignoring, even denying the greater danger of climate change. Without the house there can be no ordering of the house, or people to inhabit it, no economy or ecumenism. Why doesn’t the White House understand this?
So a spirituality for our stressed house is necessarily an ecospirituality, that gets us interacting with Creation and thinking about our human relationship with it. However, such a spirituality may not simply focus on the “eco” prefix. Focussing on creation rather than the Creator, the house rather than the house builder and owner, is a footpath to futility along which some Christian movements have floundered. Psalm 24:1 and 127:1 make this clear.
A renewed theological focus on Creation, now called “ecotheology”, must undergird ecospirituality. Perhaps ecotheology’s most important task is to help understand the Creator’s character. It’s often said that most if not all problems in theology and practice have their roots in a wrong understanding of God. My doctoral studies in ecotheology confirm this to be so in the way western Christians have related to creation.
Briefly, the Bible depicts God as being so great as to be both immanent (very close to us) and transcendent (quite beyond us) simultaneously. I don’t understand how this can be so, but neither do I understand how light travels both as waves and as little packages called photons. At some point understanding gives out, and wonder simply increases!
The important thing is to keep affirming that God is both transcendent and immanent. For various reasons most western Christians believe that God is transcendent, but have forgotten that God is immanent. That has led to many of us understanding humans to be stewards of God’s house, the world, and God to be like the absent householder or landowner of several of Jesus’ parables. There is great truth in this insight, enough to make it really dangerous if it is not held together with another great truth, that God is intimately close to us and involved in Creation. For a steward runs the property on their own, in the owner’s absence. In the best case they do so responsibly, and to the best of their ability. But with the best will in the world we will never do as good a job as the Creator by ourselves, and all too often the human will is not good at all. Jesus’ parables about unjust stewards beating the landowner’s messengers and killing his son say something generally true about the human lust for control, as well as about what the Jewish religious authorities would do to Him.
Mindful of this dangerous flaw in the “stewardship model’s” understanding of how humans might relate to Creator and creation, some have proposed alternative models. Unfortunately, most of these start with who humans are rather than who God is. Not that we shall ever plumb the depths of God, but unless the God we believe in corresponds well with the God presented in the Bible we shall continue to relate wrongly to God, each other and the rest of creation, causing no end of stress!
In my ecotheological research on the Murray-Darling Basin’s waterways I learned about the interwined biblical themes, “the river of life” and “the water of life”. Running (like a river!) through the entire Bible, these themes offer a perspective from which to view its overall message. They present a God who, though transcendent, is intimately involved in the life of this world, providing for humans and working towards creation’s restoration.
These two themes are epitomised in John 7:37-39. Jesus interrupted the last and greatest day of the Feast of Sukkot, at which the Jews commemorated God’s provision of water from the Rock of Horeb during the Exodus, identifying Himself with the Rock and with God:
“"If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, 'Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.'" Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.”
While asserting God’s awesome transcendence and our human status as stewards of God and servants of creation, an ecospirituality for a stressed house, the whole inhabited world of our times, will affirm the immanence of God’s Holy Spirit for whom we are also conduits out into the world and by whom we are to be guided each day. One of the names for the Spirit is “Comforter”. What reassurance for people living in stress and fear! An ecospirituality for a stressed house will help restore a proper emphasis upon the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity. How wonderful if the Uniting Church could offer this, along with our focus on social justice and ecumenism, to our stressed, fearful world!